cover image PECULIAR BEAUTY: Three Centuries of Charmingly Absurd Advice

PECULIAR BEAUTY: Three Centuries of Charmingly Absurd Advice

Bonnie Downing, . . Carroll & Graf, $13 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-7867-1450-6

This compilation of personal beauty advice dating from the late 1700s to today, though entertaining, fails to amount to anything greater than its superficial parts. Editor Downing gleans random bits from years of tracking what she calls an "underappreciated genre" and packages them into short chapters with witty titles like "Meat, Grease, and Booze" and "Near Death Experiences." In a slim introduction, she writes, "I hope you'll laugh out loud when you read suggestions to wash your hair in gasoline, or to add spinach leaves to the bath—but really, is any of it stranger than Botox?" From inspirational writing by familiar beauty icons like Elizabeth Taylor ("If you think a picture of me as Miss Lard will inspire you, go ahead and put it on your refrigerator") to vintage avowals by lesser-knowns ("We might as well admit there's a dash of hussy in all ladies"), readers are bombarded with the timeless notion that a woman's goal should be to look her best at all times and under all circumstances. But with few insightful cultural observations or historical explanations (one sidebar notes that the "raw food" fad dates to the 1800s; another tells the origin of Vaseline), this assemblage is little more than amusing—except when it's just plain disturbing. Photos. (Nov.)